Signe Westi Nanking

The Rape of Nanking: A Forgotten Holocaust?

Part 2/4

The Rape of Nanking is arguably one of the most brutal and systematic sexual assaults of the 20th century. Approximately 20,000-80,000 women and children were brutally raped across a six-week period, often being left to bleed to death. The occurrence of forced incest and fetal mutilation did not motivate the international community to take action for another decade. This blog post asks why was this massacre swept aside for so long and what, if anything, did the international community learn from the experience?

NEXT POST: The Rape of Germany

By the late 1930s very little had been done to recognize mass war rape as a crime in itself. Instead, rape was simply accepted as ‘one of the spoils of war’ rather than a widespread and systematically orchestrated military tactic. One of the most widespread acts of rape occurred in the former Chinese capital of Nanking.

The Invasion of Nanking

In 1937, during the second Sino- Japanese war, Japanese troops sieged the poorly defended Chinese capital of Nanking. Frustrated by the resistance of the Chinese, Japanese Officers encouraged their soldiers to invent more brutal ways to slaughter the Chinese inhabitants and quash any future resistance. A popular tactic adopted was rape. It is estimated that approximately 20,000-80,000 savage rapes took place across a 6 week period. The reason for this discrepancy in figures is that most victims were mutilated or burnt after, thereby destroying all evidence.

At the time, stories of the Nanking atrocities reached western media, yet distracted by increasing tension with Nazi Germany, stories were brushed aside and soon forgotten. It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that official witness testimonies were taken.

Witness Testimonies

According to these witness testimonies, soldiers would patrol door to door in search of people to rape and things to loot. Gang rape was also a common occurrence, with many victims left to bleed to death after in order to preserve Japanese ammunition.

Evidence collected from witnesses confirmed that nobody was spared from this brutality, with children as young as 8 and elderly women as old as 80 being raped. One survivor Chu-Yeh Chang recalls:

“ On New Year’s Eve 1937… five Japanese soldiers charged into our house, forced my father and me out, then raped my mother, my 80-year-old grandmother and my 11-year-old sister” [1]

To add to this brutality, there is also photographic evidence of babies systematically being impaled on bayonets.[2] In a similar vein, many pregnant women were sliced open and had their fetus ripped out of them before being left to bleed to death.[3] Moreover, further witness testimony recounts family members being forced to rape one another as an act of humiliation.[4]

Establishing Accountability: The International Tribunal for the Far East

By the end of World War II, Allied forces drew up the London and Tokyo Charters governing the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo to prosecute the high command of Nazi Germany and Japan. The main document covering the Tokyo Tribunal was Council Control Law No. 10 which officially recognized sexual violence as a crime against humanity.[5] It was on this basis that General Iwane Matsui was sentenced to death for failing to prevent the mass rape that occurred in his absence.[6]

Despite the Tribunal bringing about formal recognition of mass rape, every individual perpetrator was never trailed for their individual involvement.


If anything did come from the horrors of Nanking, it was that rape gained legal recognition as a violent crime, and was no longer to be considered an inevitable ‘spoil of war’. The 1949 Geneva Conventions recognized rape, enforced prostitution and any forms of indecent assault as crimes, yet these crimes were still not crimes serious enough to be considered as ‘grave breaches’ of the convention.[7] This was a situation that would take another 50 years to fully correct.

As for Japan, those commanders sentenced to death at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East were added to the list of ‘honoured men’ at the Yasukuni Temple in Tokyo. To date, Japan has never formally recognized the events of Nanking, claiming the events to be over-exaggerated and unsubstantiated hearsay.

Sophie Jackson is a graduate student from the University of Groningen. With a background in gender equality, philosophy, international criminal law and human rights, she writes about sustainable development through issues arising from serious human rights violations.


Part 1/4: Eradicating Sexual Violence as a Tool of War: Why has Impunity Existed for so Long?

Part 2/4: The Rape of Nanking: A Forgotten Holocaust?

Part 3/4: The Rape of Germany

Part 4/4: Rape in the Bosnian War: An End to Impunity?

ViissiArt: Signe Westi, Made for Viissi


[1] K. Williams, Nanking Conflict Profile, Women Under Seige


[2] Newsweek, Exposing the Rape of Nanking, Newsweek News

– http://europe.newsweek.com/exposing-rape-nanking-170890.

[3] International Portrait: Nanking, Will We Ever Learn From the Mistakes of the 20th Century?, International Portrait

– https://internationalportrait.wordpress.com/tag/nanking/.

[4] S. Sivakumaran, Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 18 No.2

– http://ejil.org/pdfs/18/2/224.pdf.

[5] Allied Council Control, Law No. 10: Punishment of Persons Guilty of War Crimes and Crimes Against Peace and Against Humanity

– http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/imt10.asp.

[6] International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Judgement: Matsui v. The United States of America & Others


[7] International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War


Useful Resources






Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking’, 1997, Penguin